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Purcell on film

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 09:54 UK time, Monday, 27 April 2009

lucy_speed_as_nell_gwyn_sml.jpgNell Gwyn (1650-1687) has a meaty part in Tony Palmer's 'biopic' about Henry Purcell (1659-1695) -England, My England - which has just been released on DVD by Warner. It was made 15 years ago for Purcell's 300th anniversary but it is fatally slow in coming to the point in Charles Wood's and the late John Osborne's often eloquent but convoluted script. Michael Ball, the star of West End musicals, plays the grown-up composer, but doesn't appear until an hour has gone by.

Up to then it is all scene-setting with Simon Callow's sleazy King Charles swanning between the court, the theatre and the brothels in Restoration London. Lucy Speed pIays Nell Gwyn with the right sort of sharp-tongued, down-to-earth backchat for which the public loved her. An actress called Antonia da Sancha, who was mistress of a government minister at the time, also appeared as one of the king's mistresses - art mirroring life.

In fact the film further frustrates the story by occasional references to contemporary political events (Harold Wilson, an urban riot, some flag-burning) and a play-within-a-play device requiring us to watch actors playing actors putting on a performance of Bernard Shaw 's Good King Charles' Golden Days. Confused? You will be.

Problem is, there is just too llittle information about Purcell's non-musical life to create a film that uses his music as a backing score but resists actually talking about it except in the elementary layman's terms. 'Tis a catch Master Locke! The boy hath writ a catch!'

The music is beautifully performed by John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, the English Chamber Orchestra and others, but there is a constant tussle for prominence with the spoken word and the demands of the plot. It seems an attempt has been made to give everything equal weight at the cost of brevity.

This tendency to include all ideas is apparent even in the score where the Fire of London scene is accompanied not with Purcell, one realises with a jolt, but by abrasive, modern orchestral music. One thinks one has nodded off and woken in some disaster movie until one realises this is a DVD with nothing to follow. The credits reveal this was Walton's Symphony of the Air from his rejected Battle of Britain filmscore conducted by Neville Marriner on a Chandos disc. It is a bizarre intrusion.

Meanwhile, at Thursday's Shakespeare Birthday celebration in Southwark Cathedral, Arthur Smith drew a link from Nell Gwyn not to Purcell but to the Bard himself through her first lover, an actor and son of Shakespeare's nephew. The pianist James Rhodes, the dancer Amy Button and I then illustrated Arthur's narrative with three Purcell songs, a gavotte by Bach and an arrangement, again by Bach, of the slow movement of Marcello's Oboe Concerto. A crowd of a hundred turned up, laughed a few times and clapped enough for two bows at the end. K was there. Thank you to anyone else who came. I think we got away with Oh Solitude just about.

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